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Opinions of Thursday, 24 February 2022

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

If only we could laugh as easily as we did when we were kids

Many children now see social media as their only source of entertainment Many children now see social media as their only source of entertainment

It is a fearsome thing to be left alone with a modern, growing child.

How can you save him/her from being bored? The first thing one of them asked me the other day, was, “Have you got Netflix?”

“No!” I said.

This was naturally greeted with a long face.

I wanted to explain that I preferred a book to a movie. Or, if I wanted to be really true to myself, do something physical. But I held my peace as my excuses would have been lame ones.

For what would have been the point of arguing? Whatever I said would sound boring. Netflix and other major international players on the internet have sewn up the entertainment business. They know how to make videos appear “inter-active” without being actually so. The young people they captivate with their presentations are fooled into believing that it is they doing this or that on the screen!

In one series I was forced to watch, young people in my guest's age group built all manner of edifices – some silly; some ingenious, some catching people who wanted to run through the buildings others sprang deadly beasts on them. Meanwhile, manic laughter and screams accompanied the pictures. How could any sane youngster be bored with such a combination of “excitement”?

In another series, viewers were taken to the depths of the sea, where they had to intervene and prevent creatures animals or vegetables – which were mutually antagonistic, from destroying one another. Youngsters of my guest's age tried to prevent the hostilities by using a rescue ship (which reminded me of “International Rescue” episodes I watched million years ago!) to save threatened species. They put themselves in some danger trying to do this – a very worthy objective, which marked them out as great heroes and heroines.

The sophisticated nature of the modern entertainment platforms for children, could not but take me back to my own days as a kid. I must admit that we too were immensely attracted to moving pictures. But our movies weren't shown to us at home. They were brought to us! – by way of an itinerant “cinema van” with “Gold Coast Cinema” or something like that emblazoned on each side in gold lettering.

The cinema vans were of an unusual, elongated and looked as if they would fall down any time they were negotiating a bend. We were so fascinated by the misshapen bodies of vans that when we wanted to insult a playmate who had a big head, we would say, “Wo ti tenten se sini!” “Your head is as long as a cinema van!” (To us, the whole contraption – the unusual van and its strange equipment was known as “sini”.)

Cinema vans usually parked on a football field, and long before it was ready to “perform”, we kids would have arranged ourselves neatly in front of its large, white screen. We showed great discipline in arranging ourselves in a first-come-first-seated manner on the grass. Whilst we waited, the opportunity was taken by the bullies among us to try to cheat others of any advantageous positions they might have acquired by coming early. Such behavior, of course, resulted in fights.

Fights were also provoked by another sort of drama: if one was not lucky, one might squat next to a chap with a weak bladder, who had not taken the precaution of voiding his goodies before coming to squat on the football field. Suddenly, such a guy's immediate neighbors would find their feet and bottoms getting wet! Was it raining only where one sat? Was it drizzling? Was the place gone when one squatted there? No! The problem was that the guy next to one, afraid that if he got up to go and pee he would not find his seat again, would have done his business noiselessly next to one!

Other members of the audience could also break the wind and poison the air all around. Everyone nearby would look at the faces of other kids to see whether they could find a trace of the foul occurrence. But one couldn't accuse another person of such a performance, as it could not be “proved”. And a protest unsupported with evidence would result in an immediate Exchange of blows. Yet, if a fight broke out before the cinema show had started, all those involved would be thrown out of the show! Together! So, a stoical attitude was the only attitude to adopt.

The shows were ok, mainly propaganda films aimed at teaching us hygiene and that sort of thing. The cinema commentators were entertainment in themselves. I remember vividly one of them telling us, as a man on the screen went stealthily into the bush to do his “business”: “Koo na oreko no ooo! Oreko ne!” There goes Charlieman! He's going off to relieve himself!”

Everyone would laugh at such earthy language, which was supposed to be used only in private and not broadcast over a cinema's loudspeaker! Our laughter was, of course, hypocritical, as we ourselves, or people we knew, commonly indulged the same stealthy “business” the witty the cinema commentator was condemning with ridicule.

But what the commentators amused us with was child's play, compared to the “comedies” they usually showed us before the main event. In my day, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were kings of the “comedies.” I think Chaplin won the “laughter championships”. The way he walked, with his outsize shoes each pointing in a different direction, which made him look permanently drunk; the clever way in which he was able to get the better of opponents more strongly-built than himself; how he avoided being caught by policemen who were chasing him after he had escaped from prison! And things like that. We just laughed and laughed and laughed. Charlie Chaplin's name, in fact, was adopted into the Twi language as indicating someone able to use clever tricks to outwit an opponent.

Some of our favorite Charlie Chaplin films were The Wanderer and Easy Street. I learned the titles later, for some of the films were so old that they had lost the title page and opening shots and began in the middle or even later. So we had to conjure up what might have happened earlier, with our own imagination.

Laurel and Hardy had all sorts of tricks with which to make us laugh manically. Their facial expressions were out of this world and could tell us a whole lot. And the way they worked off each other was exquisite. Even we, kids, could realize that neither of them, by himself, could create situations that made us laugh as much as the pair of them did. There was one movie that was so good I still remember ti vividly: Laurel and Hardy were trying to deliver a p[piano to a customer's house; the house was built on a bill, and any time they made a mistake, the piano rushed down the hill and they had to go downhill and try again – with the same result. It was just crazy.

The cinema shows which exhibited films to us in the odd-shaped vans, belonged to the Government's Information Services Department, and we watched their films free of charge. The Second World War years provided much material for propaganda, and young as we were, we noticed that as soon as the war ended, cinema shows became quite a rarity! The War films were difficult to understand – a lot of booming noises and white men killing white men. Even the commentators didn't know how to interpret the action, and often just told us: “Oko no mu aye den tantaantan!" The fighting has become very fierce indeed!

It was a spectacular failure in propaganda, as directed at us by the British colonialists. The films failed to show us pictures of Hitler and his German army, which had aroused our curiosity because everyone talked about them. Why were they fighting the British? No answer! Who would win? No answer! What would it be like to win or lose? No answer!

When the war ended, and free cinema shows dwindled, there was the popularity that encouraged private exhibitors to come to our villages and charge money to show us films. The best-known of these itinerant cinema exhibitors was a guy called “Ataa Joe”.

Ataa Joe didn't have a sense of humor, and yet he showed films that made us laugh and laugh. How do I know he didn't have a sense of humor? The trouble with him was that he showed very old films, which had been screened so many times by his rickety machinery that they kept “breaking” or spooling out of his old projector altogether.

Of course, village audiences were not sympathetic to his plight and whenever a mishap stopped the show, people would shout irreverently at him: “Operator eeeei!” This shout was usually accompanied by an expletive. Some members of the audience preferred to whistle. Again, followed by an expletive. Whilst trying to get the film back on track, Ataa Joe would give his hecklers as much grief as they sent his way.

The Twi with which Ataa Joe depicted what his heroes were doing on the screen was pretty awful, and yet because he liked talking, he would accompany entire films with commentary – all in rotten Twi. One day, someone shouted at him, “Ataa Joe, wonnte Twii na ka wano tom.!” [Ataa Joe, why don't you shut your mouth, since you can't speak Twi properly?Ataa Joe's reply was: “Maka na wonnte ase a kone na tra ho!” [If I've said something that you don't understand, why don't you go and defecate and sit by it?] Of course, such an ingenious retort produced much laughter.

It was Ataa Joe who first introduced to Ghanaians who lived in the rural areas, such as “blow-men” (strong pugilists) as Buster Crabbe, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Randolph Scott. He also showed some Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films, as well as episodes with Al “Fuzzy”, an oldish actor who caused much laughter because he always talked as if he was “chewing the cod” (chewing tobacco, probably). Frail as he was, Al Fuzzy had to be rescued from villains by “the blow-man” in every film. Yet he never learnt not to get into the hands of criminals! of course, this caused us great laughter.

Ataa Joe was also the first person through whom many of us got to watch the exploits of the inimitable Tarzan of the apes. Those Tarzan films showed how clever Hollywood filmmakers were. Although we were Africans like the people who were depicted as “savages” in many of the films, we were usually on the side of Tarzan against the “people of the jungle” i.e. people like us!

Tarzan's charm, to many of us, lay in his ability, as a lone hero, to beat up whole hordes of people, single-handed; in the cause of what was “right”. His heroics were facilitated by incredible agility that enabled him to jump from tree branch to tree branch, unseen by dangerous enemies looking for him or a beautiful white woman on the ground! He also won our sympathy by the love he showed to a little chimpanzee that kept yelling its head off!

Despite our love for hid films, Ataa Joe's unwillingness to tolerate insult exposed him to greater ridicule than I have so far narrated to you. For instance: his “cinema” was mounted on a very old pickup van, on which he had erected a tarpaulin roof. Its appearance was cause for laughter. But because we didn't much like Ataa Joe, the vehicle's pronounced lack of speed also amused us. We would run alongside it, as it smoked its way along the road, threatening to burn down and take our whole village with it! So children would troop behind it, shouting: “Ataa Joe sini waabo dam!”. Ataa Joe's cinema truck has gone bonkers!

I cannot help admiring Ataa Joe in retrospect. For he had enormous pluck, which enabled him to make money gladly, though suffering from hostile ridiculing, while he was at it.